Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Last bird, first bird

            Yesterday and today are the same. It is winter. The sun has set and risen, just like it has for millennia, just like it will for years more. But, since today inaugurates the new calendar that you bought half-priced after Christmas or received for free in the mail, it is a big deal to us humans. Time—we live in it, but can’t quite grasp it, and anything we can’t grasp is fascinating.
            The birding world is not immune to the turn of the year.
            In fact, birders are more excited than the average citizen about each New Year. No, we don’t party late and spend January 1st with a hangover. Rather, we turn in at 9:00PM in preparation for our early alarm to start the fresh year list…
            Yes, the year list, that mortal list among the immortal county, state, birds-seen-while-peeing lists. Every year, the clock is reset. Every birder’s year list goes back to zero. Lots of birders keep meticulous tally of their year lists.
            I’ve kept my share. In fact, I was so excited by the idea when I first learned of it that I started my year list right then and there, on September 17th, 200?. Eventually, I switched to the kosher start date.
            The zenith of my year-listing was 2009. I rabidly kept a Bigby list—a specialized year list that only allows birds seen while walking or biking from home. A year of collecting 283 species, only to lose them all when December changed to January…
            When a birder obsesses over his year list, it becomes a Big Year. The birding community reveres those who have taken the quest to monumental proportions. Kenn Kaufman in Kingbird Highway, Sandy Komito in The Big Year—the Herculean efforts of these superstars inspire a fresh crop of year list junkies annually. It can be a Big Year (ABA area), a Big Year in a state, a Big County Year, or…
            Or a Big Year of birds seen by bike.
            Anyway— each year, whether it is a Big Year or a Normal Year or a year without a year list, is always kicked off by one bird, the first bird. “What was your first bird of the year?” birders ask each other. It is the topic of many forum threads and Facebook posts.
            I reflected on this tradition as I wrote in my journal on New Year’s Eve. Hunched in my chair, I tried to write but ended up nibbling my fingernails. First bird—what will it be tomorrow morning?
            Then I heard the pattern: __-_-__---______-_______
            No, it couldn’t be—the window was shut. I set my journal on the desk and listened. There it was again!
            I reached forward, slid the window open. Sat in silence.
            whoo-whoo-whoo—hoooo-hoooo
            Ah, a Great Horned Owl. I glanced up and saw my reflection smiling at me in the window. A good way to end the year. I sat and listened to the owl’s serenade. A second owl joined in. They sang their throaty duet, an old married couple getting friendly in preparation for another breeding season. I winked at my glassy twin, wrote a few lines, and then crawled into bed.
            It was 2014 when I emerged. I stumbled to the same window, cracked it open, and strained my sleepy ears. The first sound to reach my ear was a warbling House Finch.
            Another year. I won’t have a list, but I still had a first bird.

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